the piano teacher and teaching
Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher might just be the best film about teaching that I’ve ever seen. In particular, high-end teaching – the instruction of students potentially good enough to better their teacher. In the film, Erika Kohut (played by Isabelle Huppert) is a professor of piano at the Vienna Conservatory. She once had hopes, it seems, of being a big-time pianiste herself – hopes which are still held by her tyrannical mother, who warns her daughter in an early scene “If you want your students to have a career instead of you… No one must surpass you, my girl… Ne sois pas maladroite.” But of course her mother’s words speak to (or around) the insurmountable problem, even paradox, at the center of high-end teaching. One teaches because one can’t quite do, but can nevertheless do well enough to instruct others – others with a hope (that’s why they’re there!) of doing better, even doing well enough not to have to teach. Erika, as it turns out, obeys her mother’s orders with shocking fidelity.
She’s an extremely demanding teacher, but what she teaches is a demanding topic – interpretation. We hear her again and again criticize her students for faulty comprehension of the composer’s directions as to tempo or dynamics, or in the case of music accompanied by song, their understanding of the relationship between the notes that they play and the words that go with them. At one point, she berates one of her charges for missing the fact that “here, the mood switches to irony” as well as the “obstinacy of the complacent middle-class” expressed in one of the songs. In the scene that I’ve clipped in here, it’s the question of what Schubert’s instructions mean – “Schubert’s dynamics run from scream to whisper not loud to soft.”
She is an extremely good teacher, it seems – but her aptitude only heighens the contradiction that I described above. In fact, it heightens it so much that the film has to shift registers, translating what had been an issue of interpretitive education into one of sexuality. Erika’s affair with Walter Klemmer starts where the piano instruction left off. He is desperate for her attention, and she responds by giving orders, and eventually composing an entire textbook of sexual interpretation for Walter to follow. The results are disastrous (and unfortunately, not English subtitled on Youtube….)
It is worth remembering at this point that Erika’s sexuality has been figured all along as not only masochistic but spectatorial. She doesn’t seem to get off, but what fun she has in this department arrives via the observation of the fun of others. She spies on people fucking in their cars at a drive-in movie theater, and retrieves the cum-rags in a porn shop video-cell in order to sniff them. Those who cannot do… But at the point in the film captured in the video above, Walter rejects her instructions as insane – in fact, insanely overly-instructional. She reacts desperately, but despite her desperation, anything beyond written instructions, anything beyond teaching, is too much for her. (In the next scene, as she apologizes to him and begs him to stay with her, she frantically offers him oral sex – but vomits when he ejaculates in her mouth….) Thus begins her plummeting fall from the position of the teacherly mastery at the hands (and cock) of a student who will both follow her instructions all too literally (showing up at her apartment that night to beat the shit out of her, breaking her nose, ignoring her pleas for him to stop – all per her previous written instructions) and at the same time asserting his own right to make up some rules of his own.
As he says just after breaking her nose, “You know, I do realise that all this isn’t very nice of me. But if you’re honest, you’ll admit you’re partly responsible. I mean, it’s true… Yes or no?” She answers in the affirmative. He repeats, “Am I right?” And she responds “Yes, Walter.” And as he rapes her, he utterances take on an uncannily pedagogical tone, a series of imperatives and scolding prohibitions: “You have to give a bit… You can’t leave me now… You can’t humiliate a man that way and… It’s not possible.”
Stringent instructions on musical interpretation have given on to sexual orders, but this time Erika’s student at once fulfils and outsteps the paths that she has outlined in her teacherly instructions. It is the ostensibly blissful moment of the student’s supercession of the master, what we teachers all would say that we hope for, that we teach for, but which in fact – whether we know it or not – constitutes an act of fatal violence upon ourselves and the very authority upon which our instructorial authority is based. All of which significantly clarifies the stakes of the final scene.
Back during Walter’s initial admission interview, Erika had argued that he was too old to have a shot at a career as a professional pianist. But if he is too old, what does that make her? Her belated turn toward sexual adventurism in lieu of the intensities of work was always already a registration of her failures as an artist – in a sense, it was implicit in her taking up of a position, right from the start. She will never get her shot, it’s way too late – she can only give instruction and live on with he ambivalent hopes and fears that someone learns to obey them so thoroughly that they come to disobey them. That is to say, to learn to love her with all the sexualized violence and hatred that she displays toward her own mother. But unlike the the pathetic old woman with whom she shares a bed, she is enough of a professional to do herself in (if that is what she has done) just at the moment when the outcome – of all of it – is clear and she has finally lost and her student has in his own way won. But even this act, as you can see in the clip above, hovers undecidibly between stonecold hari-kari and some sort of apotheosis of childish passive-aggression. Whatever she has done in this scene, and whatever the outcome, she has missed the heart yet again.